Note to teachers: Some of the essays in this collection deal with adult themes. Please preview them and choose those that you think are most appropriate for your students.
Featured Article: “The Songs That Get Us Through It”
Every year, The New York Times Magazine publishes an issue all about music that explores the songs, artists and musical themes that capture our moment. As we head into a third year of the coronavirus pandemic, the headline for this year’s collection is “The Songs That Get Us Through It.” It includes 22 essays that touch on topics such as exhaustion, grief, community, mixed emotions and letting go.
In this lesson, you’ll choose one essay from the collection to read. Then, you’ll analyze what you think it says about music today. Finally, we’ll invite you to write your own essay, make an annotated playlist or create a piece of art to encapsulate one aspect of the musical landscape that you think is worth recognizing.
What are the songs from this past year that have helped you “get through it”?
Spend a few minutes scrolling through your music library, and then come up with a list of at least three songs. For this exercise, try to choose songs that are current or were made in the past year or so.
After you have your list, see if you can make any connections among the songs. Here are some questions to consider:
What topics do the lyrics touch on? Are they alike in any way?
What themes do these songs have in common? For example, a theme might be love, heartbreak, friendship, angst or growing up.
Are their sounds similar? If so, in what ways? How would you describe this sound?
Taking these songs together, what do you think they say about your life over the past year? What do they say about the world? What do they tell you about music now or where it might be headed?
If you are in a class, compile a list of some of the topics, themes and sounds students came up with. Does your class notice any commonalities? Can you sort them into any groups? You’ll use this as a jumping off point for one of the Going Further activities.
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Scroll through the entire article, which includes 22 essays. Each essay focuses on one theme (which you can see in the top left corner), one song or a set of songs (you can turn the music on or off by clicking the sound icon in the top right corner).
Choose one of the essays to read in its entirety (click “Read More” to unfurl the essay). Then, answer the following questions:
1. In a few sentences, summarize the essay in your own words. What are some of the key points the author makes?
2. The theme of this year’s music issue is “the songs that get us through it.” How does the song (or songs) featured in the essay you read relate to that theme?
3. Listen to the song (or songs) that are the focus of the essay. (You can find the song under the headline.) What thoughts, ideas or feelings come up for you as you listen? Can you relate to the song personally? Do you agree with what the author writes about what the song says about our world and about music today? What do you think it says?
4. What is one line in the essay that stood out to you, and why? In what ways did it move you, resonate with your experience or challenge your thinking?
5. Why do you think The Times Magazine publishes a music issue every year? What power can music have in our lives and in our world? How can it help us “get through” difficult times?
Here are three ways you might use The Times Magazine’s music issue as a model for creating your own multimedia piece about the music you are listening to:
Imagine The Times has asked you to contribute an essay to the magazine’s music issue. Choose one song, artist or theme you came up with in the warm-up activity and write a short essay about how it relates to the topic of “the songs that get us through it.” In your essay, you might write about what this music has meant to you over the past year, as Alexandra Kleeman does in her essay about how the music of Dean Blunt and Noname helped her through the pandemic. Or you might write about how it connects to a larger issue in our world today, as Lindsay Zoladz does in her essay about the relationship between Mitski’s music and TikTok, or as Sam Anderson does in his essay about what the obsession with “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” says about society’s rules on public discourse.
Create an annotated playlist of at least five songs related to a particular theme that you’ve noticed in music. You might draw on one of the themes explored in the article — exhaustion, teenage angst, mixed emotions or community, for instance — or return to one you came up with in the warm-up activity. For each song in your playlist, write at least one paragraph about how it relates to your chosen theme. You can find more tips for creating an annotated playlist in this lesson plan.
The art that accompanies each essay is another important part of the annual music issue. Each piece tells a story about the state of music today. For example, take a minute to study how this collage of the band Turnstile illustrates the essay’s theme of “community,” how this portrait of Mary J. Blige depicts “the beauty of vulnerability” or what this digital illustration tells us about fame. Again, choose one song, artist or theme that you brainstormed in the warm-up activity and create a piece of art that encapsulates it. Write a short artist’s statement that explains what your artwork says about an aspect of music today.
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